Georgia governor tries to defuse rift with Trump over coronavirus rollback

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Gov. Brian Kemp tried to tamp down a dispute with President Donald Trump over easing coronavirus restrictions. Kemp expressed optimism Monday about the state’s fight against a pandemic that’s brought sectors of the economy to a halt.

Gov. Brian Kemp tried to tamp down a dispute with President Donald Trump over easing coronavirus restrictions as he expressed optimism Monday about the state's fight against a pandemic that's brought sectors of the economy to a halt.

The Republican instead lashed out at one of Trump’s favorite targets - the media - as he stressed how his administration has worked closely with the White House and spoke of “another great call” with the president earlier in the day.

“I just want to tell you, I appreciate what the president is doing,” Kemp told a handful of reporters at a socially-distanced press conference at the state Capitol.

“He said it best today: The media wants to continue to divide us during this period. But let me assure you, there will be no dividing. We’re going to continue to work with his administration and the president and the vice president and the task force.”

Kemp would not directly address the president’s repeated criticism of his coronavirus approach last week, but heaped praise on what he called an “unprecedented” response from the White House.

And he maintained that Georgia was ready for his decision to reopen certain shuttered businesses, and allow restaurants to restart in-person dining on Monday, thanks to an increase in testing and encouraging hospital capacity figures.

Still, his public health commissioner said the state did not yet “fully meet” all the criteria set out by the White House to begin reopening parts of the economy, though administration officials say enough have been reached to move forward.

Instead, Dr. Kathleen Toomey said Georgia was on track to plateau in numbers of coronavirus cases. She also said she was “still heeding warnings” by refusing to get a haircut or go to other recently-opened businesses until the pandemic subsides.

Kemp did not say whether he would extend the shelter in place order that's set to expire at midnight Thursday. He earlier urged the "medically fragile" and elderly to stay home, with limited exceptions, through May 13.

In a tweet Monday evening, Kemp said he was allowing restrictions on vacation rentals he imposed earlier this month to discourage tourism to end on Friday.

‘Not happy’

The briefing came days after Trump repeatedly blasted the Georgia governor for letting barber shops, tattoo parlors and other close-contact businesses restart Friday so long as they followed safety guidelines. His order also let restaurants reopen dining rooms so long as they adhere to more than three dozen requirements.

At White House briefings last week, the president said he told Kemp he “strongly” disagreed with his decision and repeatedly said he was “not happy” with the governor’s stance.

The president and Vice President Mike Pence had earlier told Kemp in private conversations they supported his strategy, according to several officials. Kemp would not say whether Trump issued that warning during their call. 

Most metro Atlanta eateries didn't open doors Monday to on-premise dining, and several that announced plans to do so have reversed course.

But a handful decided to open their dining rooms with precautions. And in other parts of the state, many owners of restaurants and other shops that were shuttered for the last month were eager to quickly restart operations.

The governor has cast the rollback as part of a “measured” approach to reviving the state’s tattered economy during the pandemic.

And on Monday, he pointed to a new state-sponsored Covid-19 dashboard designed to let local officials chart out different potential scenarios from the pandemic, and urged more residents to seek testing if they have symptoms of the disease.

“Please go get tested,” said Toomey. “It’s easy to get tested. We have plenty of testing capability.”

Kemp said more hospitals have reported additional capacity for high-risk patients and partnerships to expand medical facilities have helped relieve the stress on the healthcare system, particularly in hard-hit areas in southwest Georgia.

“We are fighting with everything in our power to keep the medically fragile and the elderly out of harms’ way,” said Kemp, who added that Georgia National Guard teams that had sanitized at least 790 long-term care facilities and nursing homes.

‘A gift’

The governor also spoke of a recent increase of coronavirus cases in Gainesville, and said Insurance Commissioner John King was in the north Georgia city on Monday to speak with local poultry workers about safety standards.

His rollback infuriated local leaders and public health experts who warned Georgia was far from containing the outbreak, and Trump, who repeatedly blasted Kemp last week for easing the limits over his objections.

Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms has quickly become one of Kemp's foremost critics, and over the weekend she tweeted a graphic of the disease's death toll in Georgia below the caption: "If you're getting your nails done right now, please share these noon numbers with your manicurist."

But in some exurban and rural spots, local leaders were exuberant. Among them was Watkinsville Mayor Bob Smith, a former Republican state legislator, who urged his northeast Georgia town's residents to "go to work, assemble to worship" and rev up the local economy.

“These have been uncertain times, but I believe it is time to turn off the television and all the distractions in the media and get back to the basics,” Smith said in a statement, adding: “Life is a gift. Let’s not waste it continuing to sit at home, looking at four walls.”